King Benjamin and the 47 percent


September 20, 2012 by John-Charles Duffy

Reblogged from Liberal Mormon Spirituality.

There is a cherished myth in America–Romney frequently invokes it–which says that America is a place where anyone who exercises initiative and works hard can succeed.

A corollary often derived from that myth is that if you prosper, this is the result of your having exercised initiative and worked hard–in other words, a result of your good morals. This is to say that your prosperity is a reward, which you are entitled (yes, “entitled”) to enjoy.

American culture does place a modest pressure on those who prosper to “give something,” as we say, back to the community. “Something,” though. Not all. Not even close to all. Because, again, you’re entitled to enjoy what is construed as the fruits of your labor. You deserve it. And if you “give something” back, you do so as an act of largesse, not an obligation.

A further corollary of this myth-making is that if someone doesn’t prosper, this is the result of their having failed to exercise initiative and work hard. In other words, their lack of prosperity is a result of their poor morals. Lack of prosperity is the proper penalty for poor choices. It is deserved.

Americans have been living by this myth for a long time. Long enough that the Book of Mormon, written in the late 1820s, contains a protest against it. Born into a family whose fortunes had declined due to repeated setbacks, and despite their best efforts, Joseph Smith was in a position to see through the myth that good morals = prosperity and bad morals = poverty. And so we find King Benjamin saying this:

Ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—

But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.

For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?  (Mosiah 4:16-19)

“The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand . . . for his punishments are just.” That’s Smith’s bitter parody of the logic behind Romney’s complaint about people “who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement.”

Romney is echoing here a widely held corollary of the American myth. No one’s entitled to a handout. Anyone who wants to get ahead can do so if they just work hard–so if you find yourself in need, you have only yourself to blame. “The man has brought upon himself his misery.”

King Benjamin rejects the logic of the American myth. Your prosperity is not a reward for your hard work. It’s a handout–a handout that you received from God. “Are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have?”

And because you are a beggar, you are in no position to be faulting someone else for being a beggar. You are in no position–you are not entitled–to get all holier-than-they on the grounds that you worked hard to get what you have while it’s their own fault that they’re not in the same position. You’re not in a position to pontificate about how people in need should “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Personal responsibility and self-reliance are pointedly not the virtues touted in King Benjamin’s sermon. Those virtues are an illusion, he says. The reality is that we’re all beggars, dependent on God’s largesse. And someone who maintains otherwise in order to blame others for their poverty, as justification for denying them assistance, “hath great cause to repent.”

26 thoughts on “King Benjamin and the 47 percent

  1. K says:

    I’ve become lost in your rant. How is this remotely correlated to the timely issue that about half of the people in this country pay for most of the services and programming provided by the Federal Government as mentioned in the title of the post?

  2. LDSDPer says:

    VERY well written! Thank you–
    Nothing more needs to be said–

  3. james stewart says:

    the counter argument is so frequently, “well, we do as much as we can, and THEN God helps.” (referencing the scripture that it is by grace that we are saved after all we can do.) it’s hard to convince people that one, perhaps this isn’t best applied towards temporal matters, and two, that it is much much more about grace and Christ than it is about what you do. our members, threatened by the protestant belief that it is by faith that we are saved, love to reference this verse, but apply it too broadly in my opinion. when speaking of caring for the poor, we are not attempting to save them from sin, but from hunger, illness, and devastation.

    i referenced this quote previously, but it certainly correlates with your writings here: Hugh Nibley in Approaching Zion, “First, of course, the work ethic, which is being so strenuously advocated in our day. This is one of those neat magician’s tricks in which all our attention is focused on one hand while the other hand does the manipulating. Implicit in the work ethic are the ideas (1) that because one must work to acquire wealth, work equals wealth, and (2) that that is the whole equation. With these go the corollaries that anyone who has wealth must have earned it by hard work and is, therefore, beyond criticism; that anyone who doesn’t have it deserves to suffer—thus penalizing any who do not work for money; and (since you have a right to all you earn) that the only real work is for one’s self; and, finally, that any limit set to the amount of wealth an individual may acquire is a satanic device to deprive men of their free agency—thus making mockery of the Council of Heaven.”

    i believe also that these are the false pretenses in which many in the church form their political beliefs, and the sentiment and rationale of many “conservative” talking points.

    i also appreciate that recently, Uchtdorf specifically stated, “It is unworthy of us as Christians to think that those who suffer deserve their suffering.” and Pres Monson referenced ‘Mother Teresa…spoke this profound truth: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”’

  4. Joseph says:

    I agree with the points made, though I am one of those gullible people that still believes that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record, and that Joseph Smith was the translator, and not the author. (Note: I use “gullible” here humorously, since I actually feel I have good reasons for believing in the Book of Mormon being what it purports to be and what Joseph Smith said it was).

    But whether the Book of Mormon is an ancient text or a product of Joseph Smith’s 19th Century imagination, the “righteousness=prosperity” notion is much older than 19th Century America. Probably some of the oldest parts of the Bible are in Job, where this dilemma is pretty much the basis for that particular book. I may be gullible, but not quite enough to believe that the Book of Job in the version we have in our Bibles wraps the questions asked up in packages as neat as we often hear in Sunday School, but it does deal with the question of righteousness equaling prosperity and misfortune equaling wickedness at any rate (and however unclear the conclusions might be in Job at times, it does add complexity and casts doubt on the validity of those equations).

    It is true that King Benjamin makes a much more explicit plea for social justice than the more ancient author of the Book of Job. But it’s King Benjamin’s words that LDS member believe came through a more pure translation process. Which makes Romney’s religious beliefs and political statements even more difficult to reconcile.

  5. zouarvehat says:

    I don’t think ti is a myth. I think it is the essential truth this country is built on and prospers by. You own what you earn. I give back by paying taxes. What I resent is my taxes being given to those who will never give back, in the form of welfare.

    • LDSDPer says:

      you don’t resent your taxes being given to those who will never earn it (the big banks)?

      At least be fair–

      Those same big banks . . . gave a lot of $ to the campaign of . . .

      Mitt Romney.

      It’s called corporate welfare, and those men/women don’t earn the money any more than those people you imagine living off your taxes who are ‘poor’–

      Have you met any of the poor people you believe YOU feed? Of course not; they don’t have names; most of them don’t even have computer access–

      But you can meet Goldman Sachs, etc.–

      just click on their sites–

      and see their smiling faces, enjoying the wealth of those who work hard in America–

      aren’t you glad you’ve made their lives easier?

      • LDSDPer says:

        the smiling faces of those who have jobs, because of your tax baillouts–

        they look a lot nicer than the people you can’t find on the internet whom you imagine are eating, because of your taxes–

        dress better with the money you bailed them out with–

        than those on ‘welfare’–

        or food stamps–

    • tariq says:

      What makes you think that people on welfare will “never give back”? Your statement says more about your own classist bigotry than it does about the reality of people on welfare. Many military veterans are on welfare. Are they just moochers who “never give back”? Many people on welfare actually have jobs but their bosses don’t pay them a decent wage. Some people on welfare have disabilities that make it difficult for them to find jobs, especially in this economy in which even well-educated and fully able-bodied people are having a hard time finding work. Some people on welfare have stigmas as the result of past petty offenses, like getting caught with a negligible amount of weed in their possession. Some people have simply fallen on hard times and misfortune. It is rare for laziness to be the reason someone is on welfare.

      Are you LDS? Because if you are you should know that it is not your place to judge the poor. According to Mormon scripture, as John-Charles Duffy has correctly argued, 1)It is not your place to judge the poor, but rather, it is your place to aid the poor in a non-grudging manner, and 2) In the eyes of God, who gives to all men liberally, and who causes it to rain on the just and the unjust alike, you, and I, and everyone in the world, are all equally unjust beggars who depend on the Lord for everything, even the air we breathe, so we are in no position to look down on anyone, welfare recipients included. And anyone who does judge welfare recipients, or stereotypes them, or supports the cause of denying aid to the poor, has great need to repent. This is not a “mystery of the Kingdom” or some newfangled leftist, reinterpretation of the gospel. It is basic, standard Mormon teaching. Word up.

    • Joseph says:

      zouarvehat, whether you believe in God, the Book of Mormon, or whatever else or not, the American myth is still a myth. Success isn’t “earned.” It’s called “fortune” for a reason. Property is an artificial construct. So again, the American myth is a myth, whether you want to view it that way or not. Your resenting taxes and welfare doesn’t counter the basic argument in the above post. Working hard and being responsible doesn’t automatically lead to success. Luck is also needed. Failure doesn’t mean someone deserved to fail.

      So you have had some success and luck and resent sharing it with others. You are welcome to that feeling, and many others feel that way as well. You are welcome to have that be the basis of how you vote, etc. But don’t pretend it’s not a myth that you are buying into. It is a myth, and you choose to believe it.

      • tariq says:

        In addition to luck, privilege often plays a significant role in success.

        A man is born into comfortable circumstances, has access to good education, healthcare, food, shelter, clothing, transportation, a safe neighborhood, and a supportive family, in a society that does not stigmatize him, target him, or discriminate against him either officially or unoficially for his gender, race, or sexuality, and then when he is economically successful he thinks it is purely because of his own diligence, completely oblivious to the role privilege played in his success. Then that same man turns and judges those who do not enjoy such a privileged existence and concludes that they are not successful because they are lazy or unintelligent.

  6. LDSDPer says:

    these are the people you resent:

    They aren’t as pretty, are they?

  7. LDSDPer says:

    I dare you to read that second link–the one just above–

    I don’t think you will, but I dare you to read it–

  8. AV says:

    There’s a huge difference between someone humbly asking for help versus someone feeling pridefully ‘entitled’ to stolen money.

    We are to help the needy voluntarily not by government force, or it is no blessing to us or them.

    • Joseph says:

      AV, your comment has nothing to do with the post. No policy was recommended on how to take care of anyone. It was simply pointed out that being rich doesn’t make a person more “righteous.” Working hard doesn’t automatically lead to success. Financial misfortune does not mean someone didn’t “work hard enough.” And most significantly, having wealth doesn’t mean that they have earned it.

      PS: If you are going to respond to this, it would be great if you could do so with something well thought out, not just knee-jerk rants. Thanks!

      • AV says:

        I agree that being rich doesn’t mean a person is more righteous, it actually usually means a person is ‘not’ righteous, for they haven’t given their ‘excess’ to the poor, and to get rich usually requires alot of time away from the home, family and spouse, leaving most of the responsibilities to the other neglected spouse, which is not good either.

        But neither does being poor and asking for help mean that we should give them money, for maybe helping them get a job would be better for them, or just giving them a sandwich would be best because they would spend the money on alcohol or drugs etc.

        Even though we must be charitable, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t judge each person on how it would be best to help them. For enabling professional beggars, would could easily get a job but like to live off others instead, would not be righteous for us or them. Plus, there are so many people, especially widows and single mothers, who are entitled to our help and financial support 1st because they have no man to support them and if they left the home to work it would only hurt their children and society more.

        So we must use the Spirit and knowledge to judge all that ask for our help, and use wisdom in who our usually limited excess money should go to. If everyone just supported all the widows and single mothers of the world, that would take most of people’s excess and we would be left with just helping needy men to get a job.

        If God or King Benjamin really meant that we shouldn’t judge at all, and that we should just give money to whoever asked for it or we needed to repent, then quickly everyone would stop working and start begging and living off the labor of others.

        Clearly that is not what God wants, we are to use sound and righteous judgment in discerning who and how we should help those who need help, and usually that means helping men get a job, any job, instead of giving them money.

      • Forest Simmons says:

        AV you used the phrase “… could easily get a job …”

        We have high unemploymnet because jobs are not available, not because people are unwilling to work.

        Furthermore, we live in a world where mechanization has made it possible for a few percent of the workers to supply all of the necessities of life for everyone.

        The rest is fluff.

        Capitalism is not equipped to deal with this problem.

  9. tariq says:

    No one said anything about “just giving money” or about anyone feeling “pridefully entitled to stolen money,” or whatever it was you were on about. It has to do with one’s attitude towards others. If one has the attitude of the mainstream of the republican party, that poor people are poor because of character flaws and rich people are rich because of character strengths, then yes, according to King Benjamin, that person is in need of repentance. If someone takes the attitude of Paul Ryan’s favorite “philosopher” Ayn Rand, that the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the underprivileged, are parasites on society that only hold society back, then yes, that person, according to King Benjamin, is in serious need of repentance.

    Also, your claim that “everyone would stop working and start begging…” is ridiculous and based on a made up situation. Furthermore, everyone, including you, lives, to some extent, off the labor of others. Did you build the roads you drive on, the car you drive, the house you live in, the materials to build that house? Did you make the clothes you wear? Maybe, but it is more likely that someone who is not rich did most of that labor. We are all, rich and poor alike, extraordinarily dependent on the the labor of others. In fact, much of the labor we are dependent on is done by people who are not rich.

    Let’s take the council of King Benjamin and stop deceiving ourselves into thinking that we are rugged individualists. We are not. We are all beggars before God, we are all dependent on the labor of others, so let’s be a bit less concerned with judging the “worthiness” of people who need help and stop trying to rationalize the callous, oblivious, arrogant, and uninformed attitude of the mainstream of the republican party.

  10. Forest Simmons says:

    “…the attitude … that poor people are poor because of character flaws and rich people are rich because of character strengths…,”

    Here’s where the “UQ” or “unscrupulousness quotient” comes in: Under capitalism the unscrupulous rise to the top.

    Would you foreclose on Jesus or evict him if he couldn’t pay his rent? Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto him.

    If you would evict your own brother for a buck, then your UQ is probably high enough for your success in a capitalistic dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest economic system.

    • tariq says:

      Joseph Smith’s father was forced into debtor’s prison at one point because, despite his hard work, he could not make ends meet. A lot of today’s respectable citizens would definitely evict Jesus, even Christians would evict him if it was their job. The good Christian Sheriff would say, “sorry Jesus, I hate to have to do this, but it’s my job. You haven’t paid your rent for months, so now I have no choice. You should’ve paid your rent.”

      I don’t know if evicting a regular person who fell on hard times is any different than evicting Jesus. After all, “inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these….”

  11. Forest Simmons says:

    Regarding the problem of automation reducing job opportunities see

  12. aimee says:

    great article. now i know i can purposely do nothing, and you will give me your hard earnings because as you so perfectly stated “we’re all beggars”.

    • Forest Simmons says:

      If you can “purposely do nothing,” then you are a rare human being. Even the rich people that live off of the production of the working poor in the form of corporate welfare have their hobbies in the form of noble causes that they support … patrons of the arts, public TV sponsorship, etc.

      Most people that I know work hard at things that are more productive and meaningful then their “job.” Those of us that have meaningful work are glad that it also puts food on our table, but we work for the enjoyment of our chosen occupation, not for the money. Church members and other volunteers work hard without pay in their church calling and community service, and get the satisfaction of meaningful service well done.

      In Zion (the Lord’s version of Utopia) this attitude will be standard: “the laborer in zion shall labor for zion and not for money.”

      If we think that money is a better reward than this sense of fulfillment, how would we feel if someone told us that our Bishop was just working for a salary? Korihor falsely accused Alma and the other priests of working for money. Alma was indignant. His father had made it abundantly clear that the priests were to pitch in to the work of the community like everybody else, and if some infirmity prevented this, they would be cared for in the same way any other person would be cared for in the same circumstances.

      We are here on earth to learn and teach each other. If things were organized efficiently, we would have a lot more time for the things of first intent, as the ancient Greeks called them.

      In primitive societies everybody pitches in to help the community supply the necessities of life, with time left over for songs, dances, stories, games, and other recreation. With the advent of industrialization, the number of man hours needed for producing the necessities of life has steadily decreased. Modern automation is fast approaching the limit where only one man (Homer Simpson) would be needed to push the button a few hours a day to keep things going, if society were organized efficiently.

      Under these conditions the capitalistic system “provides” for Homer, the capitalists that own all of the machinery, the sales force, and people ingenious enough to figure out how to commodify things that have never been commodified in primitive societies, nor will ever be commodified in the Lord’s Zion, including religious instruction (priest craft when commodified), healing (also priest craft when commodified), sexual intimacy (prostitution), etc. Under capitalism “you can get anything you want for money.” Why? Because capitalism commodifies everything, including life. Nothing is too sacred to be commodified.

      Even if you do have the stomach or UQ for the capitalist system, you may have a difficult time staying employed. If you are not employed, capitalism does not consider your wants to be economic “demands,” and therefore the “invisible hand” decrees that your wants shall not be supplied.

    • Forest Simmons says:

      Back to the part of “we are all beggars” in the eyes of God.

      Jesus has promised to us “all that the Father has,” if we will keep a few simple rules that amount to treating our fellow creatures with kindness and consideration.

      Do we suppose that by keeping these simple rules, we have somehow produced so much or contributed so much to the resources of heaven that we have “earned” access to all that the Father has?

      The scriptures make clear that no matter how much we do, we remain “unprofitable servants.”

      There is a big difference between qualifying for heaven and earning our way to heaven. We qualify by doing what Jesus asks us to do. Then He sponsors us into Heaven, and we live on his account until the day, still infinitely far in the future, when we do contribute as much or more than we draw on (i.e. utilize) of the resources of heaven.

      Yes, there is an “economy of heaven.” But it is not a capitalist economy as Brother Brigham made abundantly clear in his famous question,”Do we suppose for one moment that the angels of heaven are trafficking one with another [for economic advantage] …?”

      Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven!

    • tariq says:

      There is absolutely nothing controversial about this article. It is simply reminding us of basic, straightforward Book of Mormon teachings. If you have a problem with it, then you have a problem with the Book of Mormon. The idea that “we are all beggars before God” isn’t something John-Charles Duffy made up. It comes from the mouth of King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon. If you have a problem with that idea, then you have a problem with basic Mormon scripture teaching.

      • Forest Simmons says:

        Well said, tariq, and why would one beggar whose needs have been generously supplied begrudge sharing with another beggar?

        I am glad that my retirement income supplemented by part time work is sufficient to take care of the basic needs of me, my wife, and my teenage daughters, with enough left over to help extended family from time to time, the stranger with the cardboard sign at the freeway entrance, etc. We gladly pay tithes and offerings. We pay taxes and are glad that some of that money goes to libraries, to help the needy, and other good community causes. We wish that the lion’s share that goes to the war profiteers (and other corporate welfare) were put to positive use instead.

        I think that most ordinary people feel this way, but they have let Limbaugh, Savage, Beck, and other hate radio hosts poison their minds against people that receive food stamps, because they think that somehow capitalism automatically provides valuable service opportunities (for everybody who wants to serve) … opportunities that come with sufficient monetary compensation to take care of all the workers’ basic needs.

        This superstition is one of the basic tenets of the Great and Abominable Church.

        If some of the battered victims of capitalism have reached a shell shocked state in which they cannot even respond to positive opportunities to improve their circumstances, then let us have the compassion and long suffering to love and care for them so that they they can heal. As John said, “Jesus loved us first, before we loved him.” And Jesus said, “Freely ye have received. [Now its your turn to] freely give.” He is a father to us, and we are to be nursing mothers and foster fathers to his lost sheep. Fathers and mothers change diapers, feed. clothe, provide shelter, etc. for a long time before their children reach a point where they can start making a significant economic contribution to the family. In the mean time their souls are just as precious to us as they will be when more independent.

        Social workers are too few and too poorly paid. If we put as much money and effort into education and other social work as we do into war profiteering, things would change for the better.

        If we were to suddenly convert all four branches of the military into a combination job corps and peace corps with a mission that expands well beyond the Civilian Conseration Corps and the Work Projects of America, then we would have the beginning of opportunities for living wage service that capitalism cannot ever provide by itself, relying as it does on the profit motive only.

        If we had a “society in which a decent person would want to live,” (as Chomsky calls it) people would not be so insecure that no matter how much wealth separates them from poverty, it cannot ever be enough. That’s the sickness suffered by those miserable denizens of the gated communities.

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